Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Science Fiction

The Doyle/Shirley Universe: A Talk With John Shirley

by Bill Ectric on Wednesday, October 16, 2013 12:02 pm

The shaded cobblestone streets of Garden Rest are lined with shops, cottages, a pub, a boarding house near the town square, and of course, something nefarious lurking in dark hinterlands. John Shirley’s Doyle After Death reads like a classic Sherlock Holmes whodunit, with a couple of major differences.

First, it takes place in the afterlife, or as the people of Garden Rest prefer to call it, the Afterworld. A private detective named Nicholas “Nick” Fogg wakes up in the Afterworld after dying in a hotel room in Las Vegas. Also, flashbacks to the detective’s last case among the living give the story a touch of gritty noir realism.

The plot advances at a breezy clip that is somehow both relaxing and exhilarating, and Shirley has a knack for cinematic descriptions. In one nighttime scene, four men look down at the town from a steep hill and see a view like a rich chiaroscuro painting. Shirley's biographical knowledge of Arthur Conan Doyle informs the novel and confirms Shirley as a fan and a history scholar. He even includes an appendix, which expounds upon Doyle’s theories about the spirit world and incorporates those theories into the novel. Comic book collectors speak of the “Marvel universe” and the “DC universe.” This is the Doyle/Shirley universe.

Gettysburg 150: The Book That Made Me a Civil War Geek

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, June 26, 2013 08:25 pm

I've never been sure how to reconcile the fact that I'm a pacifist with the fact that I'm a major American Civil War geek.

Though I'm a major geek, I'm not a Major -- that is, I don't participate in any Union or Confederate reenactment brigade. But I've been to many reenactments since the 150th anniversary of the USA Civil War began on April 12, 2011: First Manassas, Second Manassas, Ox Hill, Chancellorsville. I would join a brigade if I could get over the embarrassment of explaining it to my friends. And if I could square it with being a pacifist. So far, I'm not able to do either.

I can trace my fascination with the American Civil War to a novel, The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, and more directly to the movie made from the book, Gettysburg, directed by Ronald Maxwell. Michael Shaara, born in 1928 in New Jersey, was a modestly successful writer whose career biography seems similar to that of Kurt Vonnegut: he crossed genres from science-fiction to sports fiction to historical fiction, and reached his peak in the 1970s with The Killer Angels, which surprised the author and his family by winning a Pulitzer Prize, but did not become a bestseller until Ted Turner agreed to produce the movie Gettysburg in 1993. The movie was a success, and made the book a backlist hit for the first time. The author did not live long enough to see this happen, though his children Jeff Shaara and Lila Shaara have followed in their father's proud literary footsteps.

A Glimpse of Ray Bradbury (and Groucho)

by Levi Asher on Monday, October 22, 2012 08:57 pm

Here's something unusual: a 1955 appearance by science-fiction author Ray Bradbury on Groucho Marx's famous TV game show "You Bet Your Life".

Stocky and hearty, the 35-year-old author is at this time already a successful writer, but not yet a famous one. He cites his accomplishments to Groucho: stories in the New Yorker, the screenplay to the recent film version of Moby Dick, a novel called Fahrenheit 451. Groucho Marx fails to come up with a great moment of improvisational banter with Ray Bradbury, settling for a weak bit about "rider" vs "writer". Clearly, the show couldn't be brilliant every night.


by Levi Asher on Wednesday, June 6, 2012 09:03 pm

Illustrated Man

1. The classic science-fiction author Ray Bradbury has died. I never really kept up with his work, but when I was a kid I thought Illustrated Man had the coolest book cover in the universe. "The Veldt" was my favorite story from that collection. Here's more on Ray from Boing Boing, io9, Neil Gaiman and Ed Champion.

And while I've gotcha here:

2. Beautiful visualizations can occur when great authors pick up the brush.

Adventures in Bookselling, or Bill Ectric Goes to Hollywood

by Bill Ectric on Thursday, June 23, 2011 08:32 am

Taking advantage of a Hollywood vacation my wife won at her office Christmas party this past December, I decided to visit a few West Coast indie bookstores with copies of my novel, Tamper. This was our first time in California and we loved everything about it. In between sightseeing and dining, I dropped in on four bookstores I had chosen from a list provided by L.A. resident Wanda Shapiro, author of Sometimes That Happens With Chicken, whom I recently befriended on Facebook.

First, I have to say, the printed book is far from dead. On the flight from Jacksonville, Florida and throughout our stay in the Los Angeles area, I lost count of the number of people I saw reading books (not ebooks) at the airport, on the plane, in the hotel lobby, in coffee shops, and on the beach. Once, on my flight back to Jacksonville, I saw no less than three people in a row, all reading books at the same time. I managed to sneak a snapshot of them with my iPhone before the flight attendant reminded me to shut the gadget down while we were in the air.

Appreciating Neil Peart, Lyricist

by April Rose Schneider on Tuesday, February 22, 2011 08:37 pm

(April Rose Schneider's first Litkicks article was about nearly-forgotten 1960s novelist Richard Farina. Here, she analyzes the poetic sensibility of a not-forgotten but barely appreciated rock drummer and lyricist, Neil Peart of Rush. Enjoy! -- Levi)

Rock and Roll lyrics are generally anything but artful. Flimsy as a piece of tissue in a tornado, the words to most pop or rock songs are best suited for head scratching. Remember "Louie, Louie", first released in 1963?

Christopher Nolan's Inception: Want and Need

by Dedi Felman on Thursday, February 17, 2011 07:29 pm

(Guest blogger Dedi Felman's analysis of screenwriting techniques for this year's popular Oscar-worthy films continues. Previous entries discuss The King's Speech and The Social Network. -- Levi)

Action movies and hyperarticulate idea movies don’t usually go hand in hand. So when Inception blasted onto screens last summer, its unholy marriage of genres at least partly explains why it was accompanied by a white hot publicity streak. Would Chris Nolan forge a bridge between Charlie Kaufman, king of idea-filled films such as Being John Malkovich, and Michael Bay, master of summer popcorn action fare? And could that bastard child possibly be any good as a script? After several reads of Nolan’s screenplay, my unequivocal answer is yes. And the more I dig into this complex script, the more enthusiastic I get. What makes Inception such a daring and well-executed juggling act? And how does Nolan make it all work?

A Philosophical Chat with James Morrow

by Bill Ectric on Monday, May 5, 2008 11:05 pm

As teenagers, James Morrow and his friends made short 8mm movies based on Coleridge and Poe stories. Morrow went on to earn a master's degree from Harvard University, then published his first novel, The Wine of Violence, in 1981. His latest, The Philosopher’s Apprentice, prompted the Library Journal to compare Morrow to enlightenment luminary Denis Diderot, “A man who believed that literature and philosophy marched hand in hand and who was not afraid to discuss serious matters in a comic tone.”

For his numerous books written between 1981 and 2008, Morrow has received the World Fantasy Award (twice), the Nebula Award (twice), the Grand Prix de l'Imaginaire (once), and the 2005 Prix Utopia at the Utopiales SF Festival in Nantes, France.

Morrow and I discussed his latest two novels. The Last Witchfinder concerns a brave 18th century woman who teams up with Ben Franklin to discredit her zealous father’s persecution of witches. Philosopher’s Apprentice is the fantastical tale of a graduate student hired to teach morality to a teenage girl with a blank slate for a conscience.

Bill: You once said it took eight years to develop The Last Witchfinder. When you are writing a book, do you ever worry that someone else will have a similar idea and “beat you to the punch”? Is there a battle between taking your time to get it right vs. getting it published before someone else does steals your thunder, like Tesla vs. Marconi?

James: For me, the greatest pleasure of novel-writing is living inside the same fictive world for several years running, playing with its possibilities. The composition process normally finds me drawing inspiration from the cultural mood of the moment, though by the time the book actually sees print that same cultural mood will have shifted. I can easily imagine some posthumous biographer noting that James Morrow always managed to be slightly out of phase with the zeitgeist.

My satire on the Reagan-era arms race, This Is the Way the World Ends, followed in the wake of a half-dozen Armageddon novels. That’s probably one reason my publisher released the novel with no particular fanfare. I like to think my treatment of nuclear war was unique, but Henry Holt never figured out how to make booksellers understand what set This Is the Way the World Ends apart from Riddley Walker or The Postman or Warday. Had the manuscript landed on my editor’s desk a year earlier, it would almost certainly have generated more in-house excitement.

A similar fate befell The Last Witchfinder, which features an unusual fictive take on Benjamin Franklin. While I was writing that novel, the country in general and Philadelphia in particular were gearing up for a Franklin tricentennial -- he was born in 1706 -- and I had high hopes that these celebrations would offer me some promotional opportunities. Alas, by the time the book appeared, late in 2006, Philadelphia had been “Ben Franklined out,” or so my publicist was told by an impresario who’d spent the past two and a half years organizing Franklin festivities throughout the city.

Presently I’m writing an historical novel about Charles Darwin, who’s been in the news lately. I’m thinking of both the landmark “intelligent design” court case in Dover, Pennsylvania, and the Darwin exhibit that’s been traveling around among the major natural history museums. Once again, I’ll probably miss the critical period for capitalizing on the media attention being accorded my chosen subject. The Darwin brouhaha will peak early next year, in honor of his 200th birthday, and yet my novel won’t be ready until 2010.

Of course, any serious novel is intended to live outside its time, and the writer who rushes to capitalize on the zeitgeist is probably committing artistic suicide. For whatever reasons, This Is the Way the World Ends remains in print, and it’s still taught in several college classes, to students who weren’t even alive when Reagan was rattling his nuclear saber, so in a sense I’m having the last laugh. And I believe that both The Last Witchfinder and the Darwin novel (tentatively titled Galapagos Regained) touch on universal themes, so in theory they’ll attract future generations of readers who won’t especially care how popular these books were when first published.

Bill: You mentioned on your blog that The Philosopher’s Apprentice is, among other things, your homage to Frankenstein, both Mary Shelley’s original novel and the various movies from Universal Studios and Hammer Films. Which of the Hammer Frankenstein films is your favorite and why?

James: When I read your question, Bill, my answer was immediate and instinctual -- and yet I’m prepared to defend it. The Revenge of Frankenstein is not as scary as The Curse of Frankenstein, as cleverly plotted as Frankenstein Created Woman, or as emotionally wrenching as Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed. And yet it has a cadaverous elegance not found elsewhere in the cycle. Director Terence Fisher and writer Jimmy Sangster suffused The Revenge of Frankenstein with a graphic sense of the unhallowed Nietzschean bravado, at once diabolical and darkly glamorous, through which the medical profession established itself in the Regency and Victorian periods. This is a wholly subjective reaction, of course, doubtless informed by the fact that I first saw The Revenge of Frankensteinwhen I was only thirteen, an age when horror movies are especially resonant.

Bill: In his book The Art of the Novel Milan Kundera speaks of “the truth that is to be discovered,” by which he means that, beyond a writer’s conscious realization of their novel’s theme, there is also, as Kundera says, “The poem hidden somewhere behind.” Kundera calls this discovering of truth in one’s own novel “the dazzlement.” Do you experience this dazzlement when you write a book? That is, of discovering a theme or a variation on your intended theme, which you didn’t anticipate?

James: I regard most of my novels as “thought experiments,” analogous to the Gedanken calculations --unstageable demonstrations conducted entirely within the confines of one’s skull -- routinely performed by physicists, cosmologists, and philosophers. It’s never enough simply to ask “What if?” You must actually run the thought experiment. You need to write the damn book. And that usually entails being surprised by the outcome.

No matter how carefully I outline a novel, it will normally get away from me during the composition process -- and that is all to the good. If there’s “dazzlement” in the writer, then there will probably be “dazzlement” in the reader. Indeed, the only reason I go to all the trouble of writing fiction is the expectation of discovering some hidden but astonishing potential in the themes and premises with which I’m experimenting.

One of my favorite James Morrow novels, Blameless in Abaddon, finds the hero, Martin Candle, trekking though the brain of a comatose Supreme Being in search of counter-arguments to the great theodicies, a theodicy being a rational explanation for God’s apparent indifference to human suffering. Martin needs these anti-theodicies so he can successfully prosecute the Almighty before the World Court in the Hague. Strangely enough, God proves perfectly willing to make the case for his own depravity. And as I was writing those scenes, I said to myself, “Of course, wow, damn, yes, that’s exactly what a Supreme Being would do. This is God, after all, not some cleric or politician or demagogue. God’s not out to defend his reputation. God’s out to be God.”

The Last Witchfinder involved a similar moment of dazzlement during its gestation. When I outlined the plot, I knew that my heroine, Jennet Stearne, would write a book that effectively critiques “the demon hypothesis.” But I didn’t realize that, to advertise her argument, Jennet would end up posing as a witch and arranging to be put on trial for Satanism in colonial Philadelphia. I was delighted when I stumbled on that idea, because it elevated Jennet to truly heroic stature.

Kundera has evidently articulated all this better than I could. Thank you, Bill, for drawing my attention to his insight.

Bill: We can both thank Jamelah Earle for hipping us to Kundera’s book on novel writing.

Besides the 8mm movies you made in high school, you also made some 16mm films as a young adult. Could you tell me about those films?

James: Most of these films were sponsored efforts celebrating the Philadelphia Cooperative Schools Summer Program, which ran for four successive summers between 1966 and 1969. The idea was to bring together adolescents and pre-adolescents from the public, private, and parochial schools -- students, in other words, whose formal educations had heretofore allowed them to interact only with people from similar backgrounds. Nobody was claiming that the racial, economic, and religious diversity of the PCSSP students would prove enlightening per se, but the program’s directors did believe that if you led such a heterogeneous group through a carefully structured humanistic curriculum, they would learn as much from each other as from the formal lessons. I would describe the movies as poetic documentaries that attempted to show how the students grew in self-knowledge over the course of each summer. You’ll find vestiges of my PCSSP experience in The Philosopher’s Apprentice.

But I also made my own independent films during and after this period. The one that springs to mind is a comedy called A Political Cartoon, which I produced with two of my best friends from high school, Joe Adamson and Dave Stone. I suppose this 16mm short foreshadows some of the more outrageous social satire found in This Is the Way the World Ends and The Philosopher’s Apprentice, though it’s a much gentler, less sardonic endeavor than those novels. A Political Cartoon combines live action with animation to tell the story of Peter President, a cartoon character who gets elected to the highest office in the land. It was ultimately released on a VHS anthology from Kino on Video called Cartoongate!, and it’s easily available via various dealers at By the way, both Joe Adamson and Dave Stone went on to success in Hollywood. Joe won an Emmy for his PBS documentary called W.C. Fields Straight Up, and Dave received an Oscar for cutting the sound on Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula.

Bill: Do you think The Philosopher's Apprentice fits into the “cyberpunk” category? Do any of your other books fit into the cyberpunk category?

James: I must confess to a certain ambivalence toward cyberpunk. On the one hand, the movement was certainly a breath of ... not fresh air, exactly -- gritty air, I guess. Gibson, Sterling, Shirley, Cadigan, and company recognized that, for most citizens on planet Earth, the future was not going to be a gleaming utopia of domed arcadias linked by hyper-efficient monorail systems, nor would it be characterized by off-the-shelf jackbooted dystopias. Something else lay in store for us, something urban, grungy, corporate, computer-driven, world-weary, hardbitten, and alluringly noirish. The cyperpunk vision was a real breakthrough, and I salute it.

That said, I have always been much more in the romantic-rationalist camp. It’s difficult to find much affirmation in cyberpunk. I felt that the movement contained the seeds of its own enervation -- a kind of unearned cynicism verging on adolescent whining. Nihilism, I find, is often sentimentality by other means. Of course, I’m as vulnerable as anyone to the glamour of the abyss. Several critics have argued that my second novel, The Continent of Lies, features some Gibsonesque conceits, most especially in its use of what we would now call virtual reality. As for The Philosopher’s Apprentice, while it indeed contains some hi-tech cyberpunkian imagery -- the ontogenerator is the most conspicuous example -- I would say that its sensibility is ultimately humanistic.

Bill: In The Last Witchfinder, when Jennet finds herself surrounded by bottles displaying embryos with birth defects, in the wagon of Dr. Cavendish, it made me think of being down among the unfortunate “unblessed” people, those who would tell the Church, “We are human, too.” It reminded me of the story of when the Buddha left his safe kingdom of his father and walked among the common people. It also reminded me of the bottled people in The Bride of Frankenstein, although I know it’s not the same idea.

James: I’ve always been wary of Christ figures in fiction -- it’s too damn easy to create parallels between your protagonist and the hero of the Gospels. Much as I love John Irving’s work, I really thought he dropped the ball with A Prayer for Owen Meany. (Beginning with that inversely symbolic name

Pinky in Istanbul, Macbeth in Moscow

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, March 18, 2008 09:55 pm

1. Carolyn "Pinky" Kellogg is in Istanbul! Nice to see a busy blogger getting away for a literary journey.

2. Arthur C. Clarke has died. I mainly know of Clarke for living in Sri Lanka (and reporting from there during the 2004 tsunami) and for co-writing an amazingly great movie with Stanley Kubrick, 2001: A Space Odyssey. I've also read the original Arthur C. Clarke short story that inspired this movie, "The Sentinel". This humble story only contained the short middle sequence in the film, the discovery of a sentinel (aka "the monolith") sending signals to Jupiter from a crater on the moon, and it contained no bone-thumping apes or Richard Strauss music, so I was always more impressed by the movie. I don't know a lot about Arthur C. Clarke but I think I'll be learning more in the next few days.

3. Bud Parr on Patrick Stewart as a Stalinesque Macbeth.

4. I love the Morning News Tournament of Books, our literary March Madness. I am rooting for Remainder by Tom McCarthy to win, or if not that On Chesil Beach. I'm un-rooting for Lethem and Ferris.

5. And, also on the Morning News ... speaking of movies that are better than their books, here's the Morning News on Movies That Are Better Than Their Books. And they were nice enough to ask me to contribute one! I'll tell you, I had a hell of a time choosing anything over Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but I had to put this one ahead. Click in to find out what I picked. Hell of a movie.

6. Chasing Ray on Obama's speech.

7. Where is Encyclopedia Brown now? (via The Millions).

8. Rejections.

9. Onion.

Remembering Madeleine L’Engle

by Bill Ectric on Thursday, September 13, 2007 09:07 pm

I was approximately ten years old the first time I read Madeleine L'Engle, the award-winning author of over sixty books, including A Wrinkle In Time, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and A Wind In the Door, who died on September 6, 2007 in Goshen, Connecticut.

I'll never forget those simple drawings of an insect crawling on the fabric of Mrs. Who's white robe. It looked like an ant walking a string tightrope. In those days, my friends and I learned as much science from comic books as from textbooks. An arch-villain called "Mr. 103" could morph into any element on the periodic table (now we would call him "Mr. 117"). Superman's x-ray vision couldn't penetrate lead, same as real x-rays. If The Flash vibrated fast enough, he could slide his molecules around the particles of a solid wall and pass through to the other side without damaging the wall.

But, A Wrinkle In Time was not a comic book. This was a gripping science fiction novel written for kids like me. It drew me in with a classic "dark and stormy night" beginning and launched me, not only to another planet, but also to a new plane of reading.

"You see," Mrs. Whatsit said, "if a very small insect were to move from the section of skirt in Mrs. Who's right hand to that in her left, it would be quite a long walk for him if he had to walk straight across."

Swiftly Mrs. Who brought her hands, still holding the skirt, together.

"Now, you see," Mrs. Whatsit said, "he would be there without the long trip. That is how we traveled."

The proverbial fold in the fabric of time: a sci-fi staple.

L'Engle was born in New York City on November 29, 1918. Her father, Charles Wadsworth Camp, was a writer and drama critic. Her mother, Madeleine Hall Barnett Camp, was a pianist. Madeleine began writing stories, poems, and journals at an early age. When she was twelve, she moved with her parents to the Swiss Alps. She later went to high school in Charleston, South Carolina and graduated from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1941.

After college, L'Engle moved to Greenwich Village where she worked in the theater. In 1944, she wrote a play called 18 Washington Square South: A Comedy in One Act. She published her first novel, The Small Rain, in 1945, in which the "write what you know" ethic is quite evident. The events in the book are dramatized, but the main character, whose mother is a pianist, goes to a boarding school in Switzerland and later moves to Greenwich Village.

While she was an understudy in Anton Chekhov's play, The Cherry Orchard, she met her future husband, actor Hugh Franklin. They had a daughter and moved to Connecticut to live in a small farming village, where they bought and ran a general store for nine years. After their third child, the family moved back to the city so Hugh could pursue his acting career. In addition to writing and lecturing, Madeleine became the librarian for the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine.

Hugh Franklin, perhaps best known as Dr. Charles Tyler on the television show All My Children, died of cancer in 1986. L'Engle said that writing and lecturing helped her cope with the sadness of losing her husband of forty years.

About a year ago, I wrote a letter to Madeleine L'Engle, asking her if she had ever read the works of Charles Hinton or Edwin Abbott, two authors who wrote about the fourth dimension in the late 1800's. I received a very pleasant letter back from her assistant, explaining that Madeleine was unable to answer inquiries due to her health. This gesture touched me. Even though Ms. L'Engle did not personally answer the letter, I believe it reflects on her generous nature that those close to her would take the time to do so.

Madeleine L'Engle is survived by children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and countless thankful fans.

Here are some inspiring words from Madeleine L'Engle's acceptance speech upon receiving The Margaret Edwards Award (American Library Association Lifetime Achievement Award For Writing In The Field Of Young Adult Literature):

"So WRINKLE (in Time), when it was finally published in 1962, after two years of rejections, broke several current taboos. The protagonist was female, and one of the unwritten rules of science fiction was that the protagonist should be male. I'm a female. Why would I give all the best ideas to a male?

"Another assumption was that science and fantasy don't mix. Why not? We live in a fantastic universe, and subatomic particles and quantum mechanics are even more fantastic than the macrocosm. Often the only way to look clearly at this extraordinary universe is through fantasy, fairy tale, myth. During the fifties Erich Fromm published a book called The Forgotten Language, in which he said that the only universal language which breaks across barriers of race, culture, time,is the language of fairy tale, fantasy, myth, parable, and that is why the same stories have been around in one form or another for hundreds of years."


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